Willie Miller had no idea what was waiting for him a few miles away. It was the occasion of his 94th birthday (he says he’s 95), and the folks at Southern Grace Hospice in McDonough, where Mr. Miller resides, told him that they had arranged for him to take a ride in a “hot rod” to celebrate. The ride arrived and Mr. Miller and his driver headed off toward Fayetteville. It was a beautiful, sunny day — a perfect day for a birthday ride.
After a short while, the driver stopped at Patriot Park. Suggesting that the two enjoy the park for a bit, the driver helped Mr. Miller into his wheelchair and off they went. As they headed up the hill, Mr. Miller noticed that a crowd had formed and commented on it. His new friend suggested they see what was up and went toward the crowd at the top of the hill.
It was there that Mr. Miller discovered that over a hundred people, most of them military veterans from Korea to the present conflicts, had gathered to wait just for him. Willie Miller was one of their own and they had come together to honor him for his service to the nation.
In 1943, during the height of World War II, Willie Miller joined the Marine Corps. Unlike the majority of his fellow Marines, young Willie didn’t go to San Diego or Parris Island for boot camp. In those days, those facilities were for white recruits only and Willie Miller was black. He was instead sent to North Carolina where he trained at Montford Point.
The Montford Point Marines, as they are known, made history. Because of their performance in combat, and that of other units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Executive Order 9981, an executive order issued on July 26, 1948, was signed by President Harry S. Truman.
It abolished discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the United States Armed Forces. In 2012 a Congressional Gold Medal was presented collectively to the Montford Point Marines in recognition of their personal sacrifice and service to their country during World War II at a ceremony held in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The Montford Point Marines were the first black Americans to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Almost 20,000 young African-American men were trained at Montford Point.
Willie Miller would stay in the Marine Corps after World War II. He went on to serve in Korea and in Vietnam, becoming a veteran of three wars. He retired in 1968 after 25 years of service to the nation as a master sergeant (E-8). He believes that he is the last living black master sergeant of World War II.
He was quite surprised to see all the people at the veteran’s memorial at Patriot Park who had gathered for him. Local politicians offered proclamations, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts 3650 and 9949 and the members of the American Legions Posts 105 and 50 showered him with recognitions and honors.
His fellow Marines, members of the Sgt. Clyde Thomason Medal of Honor Detachment 1325, named after an Atlanta native who was the first enlisted Marine to receive the Medal of Honor (posthumously) in WWII, made M/Sgt. Miller an honorary member of the Marine Corps League and presented him with a MCL polo shirt and hat. Others present to pay their respects were members of law enforcement, average citizens, elected and appointed officials, and staff from Southern Grace.
During the service, Miller was handed a small American flag. Looking at the flag, he said to the crowd, “There’s nothing like this anywhere you go in the world.” The assembled crowd, most of whom were veterans, couldn’t have agreed more. All present recognized they were in the presence of someone special, a true hero, a great American, even an historic figure.
He was greeted almost reverently by the other veterans, many of whom were also combat veterans of the various wars. Mr. Miller seemed pleased, although a bit embarrassed by it all.
Inscribed on the Congressional Gold Medal issued in honor of the Montford Point Marines are these words: “For outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the Marine Corps.”
The men who trained at Montford Point asked and sought only for the right to fight. M/Sgt. Willie Miller and his fellow Montford Point Marines made a difference in the war. Because of them, a difference was also made in the future and the history of the nation they defended.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee. He is also the Commandant for the Sgt. Clyde Thomason Medal of Honor Detachment #1325 of the Marine Corps League. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]